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Empire Notes

"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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June 29, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Made in the USA? Coup in Honduras

We live in strange times. A revolutionary movement shouting "Allaho Akbar" in the streets of Teheran gets adulation from all parts of the American political spectrum; a military coup in a Latin American country described by many as a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States against an ally of Hugo Chavez is opposed in no uncertain terms by the U.S. government. Perhaps next week George Bush will denounce himself as a war criminal.

No sooner did the military coup in Honduras against President Manuel Zelaya occur than one could see left headlines blaring – "Obama’s First Coup," "Key leaders of Honduras military coup trained in U.S." Allegations of U.S. involvement are hardly surprising – this would not even have been the first Central American president named Zelaya deposed by us.

These suspicions in some were fed by the fact that it took many hours for the Obama administration to come up with an unequivocal statement. And State Department officials admit that they have been working for some time to help resolve the growing constitutional dispute in Honduras; in times past, this would certainly have been code for preparing the ground for a coup.

In this case, however, it’s clear that the United States was not involved and it is opposed to the coup; this does not, however, mean that it’s not responsible in some way.

The miserable eight years of George W. Bush validated the harshest views of U.S. Latin American policy, with strong approval for one anti-democratic coup in 2002 and heavy involvement in another one in 2004. They represented, however, more a recrudescence of Reagan administration Cold War ideological and militaristic hysteria than continuity with previous policy. It was natural that an incoming Democratic administration would repudiate those stances.

Although the Obama administration has fully owned the Bush war on terror, there are some strong differences. First, they want to turn down the ideological temperature; they talk much less about war, even as they escalate it in Pakistan and Afghanistan, they hector less, and they go beyond mere pro forma invocations of Islam as a religion of peace. Second, they have no desire to assimilate the war on terror to the unresolved battles of the Cold War; as far as they are concerned, we won the Cold War and it’s time to let go. This second may well not be a conscious policy change, but the absence of the previous anachronistic Cold War mentality is palpable.

Thus, we go from the 2004 elections in El Salvador, where Otto Reich, Roger Noriega, and even Oliver North made various heavy-handed threats about the dangers of electing Shafik Handal of the FMLN to 2009, where Hillary Clinton attends Mauricio Funes’ inauguration dressed in red. Obama has indicated perfect willingness even to deal with Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.

In this crisis, the administration has turned down the chance to make rhetorical attacks on Hugo Chavez and, most interesting, seems to be waiting for the OAS to take the lead, not wanting to throw its weight around.

Despite all this, the United States still bears great responsibility for this coup. Of course the key coup plotters were trained in the United States. It would be news if they weren’t. The entire Honduran military is stamped "Made in the USA," and we’ve been heavily involved in institutionalizing the political power of the military.

For decades, Honduras has been a staging area for U.S. dirty wars in Central America. The army that overthrew Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 was trained there; during the 1980’s, Honduras was of critical importance. We started heavy “cooperation” with the Honduran military in the early 1950’s; shortly afterward, the constitution was changed to recognize the political independence and even dominance of the military over civilian power. In 1982, some changes were made, but they had little to no effect until much later because it was during the 1980’s that the United States poured in tens of millions of dollars every year to the military. Only in the 1990’s, as the United States lost interest in Central America, did some measure of civilian oversight of the military emerge.

The constitutionally and historically embedded power of the military is the question that provoked the current political crisis in Honduras; our complicity in that power is unquestionable. What responsibility do we bear to undo the ill effects of our previous interventions? This is dangerous ground – this sort of argument was used to justify the 2003 Iraq war. But these questions deserve some thought.

Posted at 10:51 am.

Additional thoughts:

1. Everybody agrees that the primary motive force in the coup is the Honduran military, with pretty broad backing among the traditional political elite. Even the famous 1973 coup in Chile was indigenously driven, although there was a great deal of U.S. facilitation. Coups mostly or entirely ginned up by U.S. operatives, like Iran and Guatemala in the 1950's are rare. So the question is whether the U.S. was involved in some peripheral way. I don't think so.

2. These remarks apply to the U.S. government. Given the Republican Party's even further descent into absurdity, I think we could well see, especially in Latin America, a real divergence between official policy and the operations of the International Republican Institute (part of the NED). It's something to watch for. Even so, the IRI can be a dominant player only in a country like Haiti, where there are virtually no organized forces; in a country like Honduras, with a well-organized military that has a tradition of political dominance, the IRI would only facilitate. If anyone comes across info on an IRI role in Honduras, please send it my way.

Posted at 12:29 pm.

June 22, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Green Revolution 2

Have you heard of Neda Agha-Soltan? In times to come, schoolchildren will learn her name. Nobody knows how many martyrs the Green Revolution has generated – it is certainly in the double digits – but she is the first one to rocket to worldwide fame, as video of her collapsing and dying on a Teheran street is viewed over and over. Repression and killing is always a double-edged sword for the forces of order, but this is especially so in Shi’a Iran, where so much of the culture is built around the veneration of martyrs, from Hussein the grandson of the Prophet through the line of Imams and down to the present day.

The dead are commemorated on the third, seventh, and fortieth days after their deaths; in the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970’s, waves of protest often came in 40-day cycles. Whatever the next few days reveal, this is not over; nothing short of the severest repression, an unlikely eventuality, can erase these events from Iranian history.

Regarding the elections, history’s first draft is still a set of disconnected notes, but the past week has turned up nothing to discredit the initial analysis of fraudulence. A new Chatham House report, while far from definitive, casts further doubt on the official figures. For myself, it is striking enough just to view the change in vote-counts for Ahmadinejad between 2005 and 2009. In East Azerbaijan, he went from 75,000 votes, less than 10% of those cast in 2005, to 623,000, almost half of those cast in 2009. The disparities in West Azerbaijan are almost as great.

Mir Hossein Moussavi, slowly growing into the role he was so randomly cast in, recently declared that events had grown past the simple issue of a stolen election. At stake is the fate of the Iranian republic, although not the overall system of theological rule, velayet-e-faqih. As have so many people in the streets, not just the young but the middle-aged and elderly and people from all walks of life, Moussavi declared his readiness to be martyred for the cause.

Given the deep-rooted legitimacy of the system introduced by Khomeini, it is natural that any attempt to challenge in a deep sense the way that system has evolved will involve a call to return to an earlier, putatively purer, form. Some critics of the opposition have made much of the fact that Moussavi cites Khomeini as his model, but this is as inevitable as the way Soviet reformers after Stalin cloaked themselves in the mantle of Lenin. Under Khomeini the repression was far more brutal than it has been since, but, despite Moussavi’s serving as Prime Minister under Khomeini it seems clear that he is not actually advocated a return to more authoritarianism but simply casting a call for more democracy in palatable terms.

It is worth noting that Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the most notable clerical opposition sympathizer, has repeatedly called for an extension of women’s rights, an end to repression of the Bahai’I, and other liberal reforms. He was once the designated successor to Khomeini as Supreme Leader, but he lost the post after criticizing Khomeini’s execution of hundreds of political prisoners, saying he would follow the Imam to the gates of hell but would not enter it with him.

Western commentary has finally caught up with the fact that, far from signaling some putative lockstep consensus among Iran’s political elite, this election-related coup is, among other things, the playing out of an enormous power struggle. If nothing else, the arrest of five members of the family of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, eminence grise of the Islamic Revolution, should have tipped people off; as of the last report, his daughter, who campaigned for Moussavi, had not been released.

Other idiocies of American commentary continue. Neoconservatives and liberals alike have blasted Obama for not saying more to support the opposition movement. The fact that these days American advocacy in itself taints its object is too difficult for them; even when the most prominent Iranian opposition groups refused democracy-promotion money allocated by the Bush administration, they didn’t get it. The reductio ad absurdum of that dynamic is now playing out, as the powers-that-be in Israel endorse the Iranian opposition.

Overall, I actually give the left high marks. Although there are those mirroring the logic of the neoconservatives and support Ahmadinejad, the vast majority of left analysts have correctly perceived that a broad popular movement for Islamic democracy and human rights deserves support against a nascent theocratic police state.

Posted at 11:15 am.

June 15, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Coup Attempt in Iran?

Startling political developments abroad always have the regrettable effect in America of creating a class of instant experts; with the rise of the Internet, this tendency has only worsened. Without wishing to indulge in this game, and cognizant of the fact that very few of the facts are yet in, I feel reasonably confident that the election in Iran was stolen.

The announced results themselves seem suspicious; an unprecedented 86% turnout, with 63% going to Ahmadinejad and 34% going to his primary opponent Mir Hossein Mossavi, who is less of a reactionary fundamentalist. Normally in Iran, the rural vote is much higher than the urban vote; such a large turnout means that the share of the vote that is urban is much higher than normal. In addition, such huge numbers rarely come out to confirm the incumbent in office. Mossavi apparently also lost his hometown of Tabriz, and various other local irregularities have been pointed to.

Most striking, though, are a series of events in the aftermath of the election. Results were announced shortly after polls closed, even though Iran counts ballots by hand; police were out in force instantly and well over a hundred opposition politicians were rounded up or placed under house arrest shortly thereafter. More recently, Ahmadinejad has joked that Moussavi was apprehended because he ran a red light. There have been numerous interferences with communication; shutting down text messaging and later all cell-phone activities, jamming BBC’s Persian-language broadcasts, shutting down foreign press activities.

Polls beforehand suggested that Ahmadinejad would get more votes than Moussavi, although likely not enough to win outright. The most plausible speculation is that Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and allies wanted to avoid a runoff that might generate runaway momentum for Moussavi and also wanted results that suggested a fair amount of unity; Khamenei certainly was in it up to the hilt, immediately declaring the results a verdict from God well before they were to be certified by the Election Commission.

The campaigning was marked by extreme acrimony, with Moussavi and other candidates repeatedly denouncing Ahmadinejad as a dictator and with Ahmadinejad in return calling Moussavi and indeed all of the secular politicians in the history of the Islamic Republic corrupt. Long-time power-broker Hashemi Rafsanjani even wrote a letter to Khamenei complaining about Ahmadinejad’s actions; afterward, he warned that no one should tamper with the election results.

Altogether, this has the aspect of a coup attempt by Ahmadinejad and Khamenei against other elements of the political elite who posed a check on them. Coups by those in power are among the most dangerous kind, since they suggest that the plotters want no restrictions at all on their power.

Despite Khamenei’s declaration, Moussavi and his supporters refused to accept the official results. Since then, there has been a growing chorus of opposition, including street protests, declarations from workers at the Election Commission and an association of clerics, even reportedly a fatwa from an ayatollah. Khamenei’s decision to call for an investigation of the results, may be an attempt to blow smoke into the protester’s eyes or it may signal that he is climbing down from the path of transforming the theocratic Islamic Republic into a theocratic national security state.

Whichever is going on, it is a terribly unfortunate occurrence. I can’t go along with Hugo Chavez’s glee over Ahmadinejad’s supposed victory, and I don’t imagine too many will. Seeing the protesters being beaten down by the fundamentalist paramilitary basij and frequently by official security forces, it isn’t hard to figure out who to sympathize with, although some on the left may be confused by the fact that the protesters are mostly middle-class and the basijis largely from the poor and working-class.

For once, we have an administration in the United States that is doing the smart thing, from a purely pragmatic point of view. While this struggle goes on and the fate of the Iranian system hangs in the balance, it is best for the United States to say nothing, or at least as little as possible. This intelligent decision by the Obama administration was largely made possible by the achievements of George W. Bush; it is no longer possible for anyone not of the crazy right wing to believe that the world is well-disposed to American meddling and happy to go in whatever direction we point.

The relative balance of forces in Iran makes a victory by the opposition fairly unlikely. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that there is much anyone in the rest of the world can do to affect this.

Posted at 11:03 am.

June 8, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Obama in Cairo: "I Have Understood You"

I read the transcript of President Obama’s Cairo University speech twice and listened to it once. It was a difficult speech, combining aspects of his 2004 Democratic convention keynote and last year’s race speech, one that did not easily yield up its secrets.

The main purpose of the speech was clear -- to go into the heart of the Arab world and to say, as DeGaulle once memorably did in Algiers, “I have understood you.” The hopes, of course, was that showing empathy for “them” would make “our” policy easier for them to stomach.

Although the speech is associated with some policy shifts, particularly on settlements, it was primarily concerned with appearances and impressions. It was easy, therefore, to get lost in the formulaic platitudes and miss some of the more interesting remarks.

And it was strong on platitudes, from the supposed Islamic invention of algebra to the wonders of microfinance to the shared Abrahamicness of the Abrahamic faiths to, of course, the recognition that Muslims are human beings too and thus want many of the same things that other human beings want.

Still, there were several points that set it apart from what has gone before. I do not include in this Obama’s statement that we are not at war with Islam – Bush was equally clear about this, despite his unfortunate use of the word “crusade” shortly after 9/11.

Among the things I do include, perhaps most striking was the complete omission of the words “terror,” “terrorist,” and “terrorism,” which provided a much-needed change in tone.

It also had the most sustained statement I can remember hearing by a U.S. president of the ills to which the Palestinian people have been subject. From the Nakba to the present, he used vague and sanitized language, but he did mention the “daily humiliations … that come with occupation,” a concept largely foreign to our political class but undoubtedly somewhat easier for an African-American to grasp.

When talking about nuclear weapons, he acknowledged that most people are annoyed when the United States throws hissy fits about other countries but keeps a gigantic arsenal itself; he even talked about nuclear abolition, though only as something desirable at some point in the distant future.

And a couple of times, he showed again the brand of perspicacity that singles him out from any American president of recent memory. When talking about religious freedom, he said Western countries should not dictate what Muslim women can or can’t wear, adding, “We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.” The right wing ought to be happy about that jab at France, but somehow I don’t think they are.

Perhaps most brilliant of all, in the middle of a ringing denunciation of Palestinian violence (after all, they’ve killed several Israelis in the past year), he subtly connects the Palestinians cause with abolition and the civil rights movement, the end of apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of Suharto’s dictatorship in Indonesia.

This was the first speech since the race speech where I could discern real thought going on. Of course, as always, whenever his thinking goes outside the box, he carefully buries the insight so that only the right kind of people can discern it. He also makes sure to remove specific references and active voice, to reduce the impact as much as possible. He mentions U.S. involvement in an anti-democratic coup in Iran, but doesn’t mention when or against whom; nor does he mention that the coup was conjured out of thin air by the United States. Although he has been excoriated by the right wing for “apologizing” for what America has done, in fact there is no apology, just vague hints that we have not always done the best thing; there is no hint that we ever had anything but the best motives.

The part on Iraq was perhaps the most offensive. While he did call the war a “war of choice,” this is a far cry from calling it, say, an illegal war. And his suggestion that the Iraqi people are “ultimately better off” would be disgusting if we had any moral or aesthetic standards worth mentioning. The Iraqi Holocaust was not a deliberate genocide and, indeed, the majority of killings were not done by the United States, but surely our culpability in the deaths of 500,000, 1 million, or more deserved mention?

Equally annoying was the omission of the Gaza assault. Apparently the hysterical bombardment of a defenseless people is too controversial for mention.

His speech was, overall, very well received by Arabs; this says, unfortunately, more about their expectations of us than it does about the speech.

Posted at 11:02 am.

June 2, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Credit Where Credit is Due: Obama and Settlements

Now that Barack Obama has connected himself so firmly to the Bush legacy with his major escalation in Pakistan and Afghanistan and his subtly delivered declaration that America will be dedicated to the “war on terror” for the foreseeable future, many on the left have suggested that his similarities to Bush outweigh his differences.

Even beyond the left, many liberals, while remaining caught up in the showy debate between Obama and Cheney over torture, have noted how disappointing Obama’s foreign policy has been.

Just as important as pointing out the similarities, however, is noting the differences. Not least among these is a different attitude toward the legacy of the Cold War in Latin America; Hillary Clinton’s attendance at the Inauguration of the FMLN’s Mauricio Funes dressed in red no less, though purely symbolic, was a powerful statement of that.

More profound and more perplexing is the new approach toward Israel. Obama is the first president since George Bush senior to state in no uncertain terms that he categorically opposes further settlement. The irony of using Hillary Clinton to deliver this statement could not be lost on serious Palestine observers; without saying it outright, she was repudiating the legacy of her husband, who presided over a doubling of the number of settlers under the auspices of the Oslo “peace process.”

It is generally not like Obama to stick his neck out even to this degree; he certainly avoids doing it without careful thought and preparation.

In one way, the call is simply a logical concomitant to the earlier declaration of commitment to what is generally called, in the delightfully euphemistic terminology of Israel-Palestine diplomacy, the “two-state solution,” despite the emergence of a far right government in Israel headed by arch-rejectionist Binyamin Netanyahu. The travesty of a “peace process” where the Palestinians have to make major concessions and abandon any independence even before they come to the table and the Israelis actively continue their encroachments even while both sides are negotiating just jumps out to any detached observer.

Even so, this represents real progress – contrast it with this recent statement by long-time U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller: “In 25 years of working on this issue for six secretaries of state, I can't recall one meeting where we had a serious discussion with an Israeli prime minister about the damage that settlement activity … does to the peacemaking process.”

It’s not hard to speculate about the potential causes of this shift.

For years, there has been a prominent and growing critique within the national security establishment to the effect that aggressive support for everything Israel does seriously detracts from the potential success of the broader “war on terror.” This is primarily a hard-core nationalist militarist argument, coming from people on the more realist side of the ideological spectrum. Early on, this viewpoint was openly expressed only by a handful of people, since most officials who held it were afraid of flak from advocacy organizations like AIPAC or congressional Democrats, but in the last few years more and more space has opened up for these critiques.

With Obama committed to a three-front “war on terror” at the moment, this move may just be seen as a necessary part of the broader charm offensive that must be waged on the Arab world.

The extremism of Israel’s recent actions, from advocacy of airstrikes on Iran to its unprecedented bombing of the Gaza strip prior to Obama’s inauguration, has also changed domestic and international considerations. While making the need for distancing the United States from current Israeli policy greater, it has simultaneously undercut support for that policy in the American Jewish community. This coincides with a repudiation of the Republicans by virtually every group but Southern whites, so that the potential political costs to Obama of this shift are very low.

At a deeper level, Obama is capable of looking at Israel and seeing the nightmare endpoint of dedication to a “war on terror” – a society that is now able to deal with its perceived enemy only in purely coercive terms. Just as he attempts to rescue American “soft power” from the damage of the Bush years, he is taking a tiny baby step to rescue Israel from the trap it has caught itself in.

There are strong limits to this shift. Obama is not considering measures with real teeth such as imperiling the flow of money to Israel, like Bush the Elder did. The farthest they may go, according to the New York Times, is to consider discontinuing the automatic Security Council veto that Israel has grown to depend on. Still, this is a welcome change and worth acknowledging.

Posted at 11:29 am.
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